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We all stopped. Our eyes took in the scene for a brief moment. Being my first time in India I was not aware of the untouchables, the caste system, the poverty. Suddenly a woman in our group rushed forward dropping to the ground and placing her arm around the downtrodden woman. She looked toward us and exclaimed, “Look at this poor woman!” We need to get her some help! She ran her fingers through her hair, swatting away flies and said: “Her hair hasn’t been washed in who knows how long and she’s likely starving.”
“We’ve got to help her”, she said, as the woman continued her mumbling and tears silently rolled down our friend's checks.
We leaped to action and someone raced toward the village community center to get some of the men to help us carry her to the shelter and clean/bath/feed her.
I was forever changed during that innocent walk on a dirt road in a remote leprosy colony in India.
I was infuriated that a human being had had to exist in this manner. I was shocked that prior to our discovery of her, no one else had attempted to help her. She wasn’t an ‘untouchable’ as dictated by her society. She wasn’t just a beggar missing limbs from leprosy. She was someone in need. She was a human being.
We all have varied upbringings, cultures, behaviors, and mannerisms. Each of us raised in circumstances by individuals who were never given a handbook on what to do with us as ‘little bundles of joy’ they suddenly find themselves with. Every one of us has a story. Many of these stories hold moments of tragedy. Many of them hold moments of bliss. Many of them unfold with hardly a blip. The one common thread that every individual's story has is that of being part of humanity. We all hold a human story. We ARE human beings. We all identify with the race called ‘humanity’.
As human beings we are genetically wired for connection, to need contact with each other. To have a human touch, eye contact and shared moments of vulnerability wherein we learn “I’m ok, you’re ok”. Documented studies have shown that we thrive on physical touch and wither with the absence of it.
Now, for the first time in our history, we are facing a worldwide pandemic that is forcing all of us into isolation from connections. From human touch. From meeting and greeting each other with warmth, handshakes, and hugs to a “keep your distance at 2 meters” approach. COVID19 has invaded our human species, threatened our existence and forever altered the way we interact with each other.
I was in Kenya working and training in remote villages when COVID19 snaked its way across borders into the United States. No one in our group could have predicted the speed with which the outbreak began to sweep across the world. No one could have predicted the swiftness of flight cancellations, border closures, and quarantines. No one could have predicted the impact.
We made our way quickly back to our lodging which was 5-hours away from Nairobi to assess our options. Reliant on the Maasai tribal guides and the trickle of information we could get access to, we began to sort through our limited options.
What we knew was:
1-Our flights out of the country were canceled
2-We were an unsafe distance from the closest airport
3-We had intermittent wifi access
4-We were in a country facing quarantine and shut down
5-We did not know what we had/had not been exposed to
6-The country had 8 confirmed cases of COVID 19, two of which had been brought in by Europeans (Caucasians- which we all were and which were now viewed as those who must ALSO have the COVID 19)
We stayed at the lodging seeking to get flights out as soon as possible. The lodging was informed by their government they had to shut down, as all workers and staff were required to return home to their villages and remain there until further notice.
Then my home town in Utah had an earthquake.
My 24-year-old son was diagnosed with COVID 19.
And then our rebooked flights were also canceled.
Things were starting to look bleak.
But not as bleak as the woman on the road in India that day. In Kenya, despite the pervading fear of an unknown disease, the communities were bonding together. No one was considered ‘untouchable’. They were sharing their food from the garden. They were not racing to stores and hoarding supplies. They were calm and ‘others-centric’. They exuded kindness towards all. They chose to greet each other with elbow bumps, smiles and an enthusiastic ‘Jambo’ (Swahili greeting). They immediately reached out to see who needed help. Employers were individually speaking with each of their employees, learning how far they had to go to get to their village and compensating them for their transportation costs and donating towards upcoming expenses. It wasn’t much, but it was something they could do. Something they controlled. No one was in the roads begging. No one was considered an ‘untouchable’ in this now quarantined country. No one was neglected and cast off to the side of the road.
We relocated ourselves to a security guarded gated lodging closer to Nairobi but still remote enough to not put us in public viewing. We then learned the country Minister of Health was shutting down ALL flights in and out of Nairobi effective midnight March 25th. The only flight we had been able to find (that had not yet been canceled) was on March 26th.
We hot spotted my laptop with the lodge owner's phone and scrambled to find ANY flight that would depart on the 25th. Repeatedly our requests were denied with text which popped up stating: “we’ve searched 400 url’s and no flights are available for your selected dates, please change your dates and try again”.
Suddenly a flight route appeared through Ethiopia with mandatory stops/quarantines along the 52-hour pathway through Paris returning to Salt Lake City via Los Angeles. It was departing at 5 am. We booked the last seats and quickly arranged for transportation to take us safely into Nairobi.
Once there we began the 3-hour processing through the airport and its checkpoints and CDC screenings. Grateful to be en-route I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between the India I had visited ten years earlier and the Kenya during a pandemic I was experiencing now and the texts and news blurbs of what was going on in my own home country.
No matter where we are in the world, no matter what piece of earth we find ourselves walking on, no matter what level of tradition, culture or belief we find ourselves witnessing we must never forget—we are all part of the human race. We are all human beings. We all deserve human kindness and personal dignity.